What Canberra Can’t Afford

Having returned to live in Canberra this year, I’ve found that one of the joys of reading The Canberra Times regularly is hearing from sports commentator Lee Gaskin about what various sporting teams can’t afford to do.

I first came across this unexpected thrill on the 27th of April, when in a column in which he stridently defended Canberra as a sports town, Gaskin dreamt of the Socceroos choosing to host a game in Canberra this year. He went on to say “If the Socceroos do schedule a fixture for Canberra, they cannot afford a repeat of the debacle of two years ago when they based themselves in Sydney and arrived in the ACT on the day of their 5-0 thrashing of minnows Malaysia.”

The line was utterly beautiful.

The Socceroos’ easy victory clearly implied that their play wasn’t what Gaskin was worried about when he said that they “couldn’t afford a repeat of the debacle.” One could only assume, therefore, that Gaskin was instead implying that the citizens and soccer fans of Canberra had taken umbrage at their national team blowing in and out of the city so quickly that the team’s relationship with the National Capital was in danger of being irreparably damaged. The idea that this is true – let alone the idea that the Socceroos “couldn’t afford” such a “debacle” – is beautifully laughable.

Today, just over 5 months later, Gaskin again called into question a major Australian sporting organisation’s ability to afford a less-than-perfect relationship with Canberra:

“With a constant battle for the sporting dollar in Canberra among the Raiders, the Brumbies and the Giants, the AFL can’t afford the [Greater Western Sydney] Giants to be horrible for an extended period of time.”

The Giants play three home games in Canberra each year, and according to Gaskin, their first win over the Gold Coast in Canberra last season “delivered them a legion of fans, enough for their crowds at Manuka Oval this year to be on par, if not higher, with what they drew at games in western Sydney.”

Without going too deeply into Gaskin’s flawed logic – if the team has a “legion of fans” in Canberra, then surely Gaskin needn’t be writing an article arguing that the AFL should be worried about small attendances at Giants games – such overblown commentary from Gaskin and other Canberran voices such as ABC Grandstand’s Tim Gavel does the local sporting scene a great disservice.

Let’s take a step back and look at the numbers for a moment. The GWS Giants have the lowest average attendance at their home games of any team in the AFL. On average, they draw 8,352 when they play in Canberra and 8,281 when they play a team other than the Swans in Sydney.

The other two teams fighting for the Canberran “sporting dollar” don’t fare much better. The NRL’s Raiders draw 10,226 on average, the lowest in the league, and the Super 15’s Brumbies draw 14,749 on average which is only good for 10th in their competition.

In a town of close to 400,000 – and more than that if you count Queanbeyan – the average crowds of the Giants, Brumbies and Raiders add up to 33,327. In comparison, the average crowd at an AFL game is 32,163.

Gaskin’s ludicrous assertion that the AFL can’t afford the Giants to be ordinary and thus draw poor crowds in Canberra only serves to emphasise just how low attendances at Canberran sporting events are. The best attendance at an AFL game in the town – and the biggest attendance for anything at Manuka Oval – was when the Kangaroos played the reigning premiers Sydney in 2006 when 14,922 people turned up.

Can the AFL afford low crowds in Canberra? Of course they can. They expect them. Fill Manuka Oval and you still have less than half the average attendance of an AFL game. Besides, the ACT Government spent $26million to ensure that the Giants play games in Canberra during the first 10 years of their existence. Now that’s something the AFL can afford.

One of the most disappointing things about returning to Canberra has been the town’s relative lack of interest in and passion for live sport. There are no great “legions” of fans here to fill any of the town’s small stadia. And when international events for niche sports are held in the town – such as the recent series in which the Australian men’s volleyball team qualified for the World Championships – the crowds are embarrassingly paltry.

Still, readers of The Canberra Times are served up hope by Lee Gaskin – “we understand why you’re not attending, Canberra,” he seems to say. “They can’t afford to keep treating us this pooly!”

But they can afford it. And Canberrans need to recognise and understand this fact. If locals don’t start attending sport more regularly, it wouldn’t be at all surprising if even the NRL or Super 15 were to decide at some stage in the future that they would be far better off if they took fixtures away from Canberra too.

It’s not the teams or leagues who can’t afford low attendances in Canberra. Rather, it’s Canberran sporting fans who can’t afford such low numbers.

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